John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, testifies before a Senate hearing Feb. 1 in Washington. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
The Office of Personnel Management accelerated its processing of retirement claims in February, according to statistics the agency released Monday.
OPM processed 9,953 pension claims in February. That's up 14 percent from the 8,749 claims the agency processed in January, and 20 percent more than the 8,300 claims it expected it would process in February.
OPM Director John Berry's renewed focus on the longstanding pension processing problem is starting to bear fruit. Tens of thousands of federal retirees wait months for their complete annuities — some for more than a year — and in the meantime have to get by on reduced interim pensions. OPM says interim pensions now average 80 percent of the full pension retirees are owed, but new retirees sometimes receive much less, which causes them financial hardship.
Berry pledged to Congress that fixing pension processing would be his top priority this year. In January, OPM released a strategic plan calling for a 50 percent increase in retirement processing staff, streamlining processes, improved information technology and better cooperation and data exchange with other agencies.
During a February Senate hearing, Berry said he had rehired eight experienced retirees to process retirements, which helped improve productivity. OPM is also granting overtime to processing specialists who prove they can swiftly and accurately adjudicate claims, and is trying to take administrative duties off those specialists' hands so they can concentrate on processing claims.
The increased processing capability helped OPM bring its backlog down 6 percent from 61,108 in January to 57,570 in February. That places OPM slightly ahead of schedule, since it had projected a February backlog of 57,678.
But in a potential sign of future trouble, OPM received almost 15 percent more claims than expected last month. OPM said it received 6,415 claims from new federal retirees in February, but it had estimated it would get 5,600 claims.
With the federal workforce aging, and cash-strapped agencies continuing to offer buyouts and early retirements to deal with tight budgets, experts believe the pace of retirements will continue to accelerate throughout 2012. And staying on top of that retirement wave will present a challenge for OPM.